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Small Town Power

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May 13, 2011

Small Town Power

A community with energy to spare

by Angela Day, Ben Sichel

Photo: Dave Ron

HALIFAX—“I can get quite overwhelmed and pessimistic at the state of the world, and I get incredibly angry at our government, which seems to be intentionally ignoring its moral responsibility for the state of Canadian industry,” says Wilf Bean, a resident of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. “With [federal environment minister] Peter Kent saying that he’s not going to pass any legislation which restricts tar sands development...It’s absolutely irresponsible.”

Bean, a veteran social justice campaigner and adult educator with the Coady International Institute, explains his decision to become the secretary of Colchester Cumberland Wind Fields (CCWF), a small, community-owned company on Nova Scotia’s North Shore.

“Getting involved in something locally, with local people, and trying to build a community that is attempting to live out some alternative...It’s necessary to my own sanity,” says Bean.

With 125 local shareholders, CCWF has raised the capital to build its first 0.8-megawatt wind turbine, scheduled to be up and running by August of this year. It will produce “about the amount of power Tatamagouche [population 900] uses,” says Bean.

Through an arrangement with electricity provider Nova Scotia Power (which has a monopoly in the province), the wind energy produced by the turbine will feed into Tatamagouche’s substation, which provides electricity to the community. This means that once the turbine is functioning, the company’s “vision of community-owned renewable electricity generation” will be a reality, Bean says.

The community-based aspect makes the project distinct, explains David Stevenson, CCWF’s president. “It’s very rewarding for individuals to have a sense of connection to their own power, and I think we’ll value it more in the long term,” says Stevenson. “All of our power will stay within this area.”

Bean and Stevenson say the North Shore community, already close-knit, is being brought together on yet another level by the wind project.

“There is that pride, that sense of...being part of something,” says Stevenson. “We had a public meeting at the hall in September...There were people there from the Department of Energy, along with local people, and the expression that was given back to us [by the Department] was, ‘Boy, you sure had people on your side.’”

Stevenson and the directors of CCWF raised money through a CEDIF (Community Economic Development Investment Fund), a tax-incentive mechanism created by the provincial Department of Finance to promote investment in local business. As more than 90 per cent of Nova Scotians’ investments into RRSPs leave this province for the Toronto Stock Exchange, a CEDIF means people have better incentive to “[put] their retirement funds in our company,” says David Swan, engineer and manager of the turbine project.

The community-based structure and cleaner-than-coal energy are what led Renate Hempel, a local heritage interpreter, to invest in the wind turbine project. “I was very intrigued by the idea to support sustainable energy that at the same time wouldn’t be owned by a big corporation,” says Hempel.

Hempel admits to having some reservations about the project. For instance, the tax-credit mechanism that financed the project means that the incentive to invest is only there “for people who pay a certain amount of taxes,”—high-income earners, she says. “It’s community-owned, but for people who pay high taxes.

“For some of my neighbours in Tatamagouche, it wouldn’t make any sense for them to invest...their taxes are minuscule” because of their low incomes, says Hempel. “I’m having a little bit of a hard time with that…It’s not for everybody.”

Tracy Glynn, a lecturer in environmental studies at St. Thomas University who campaigns against the environmental and social effects of importing “blood coal” from Colombia to the Maritime provinces, sees the project as a positive step toward cleaner power in Nova Scotia.

But, she adds, it’s important to look beyond small-scale projects like this one and work toward “replac[ing] the capitalist system, which is inherently anti-environment.” Profit, she says, cannot be the only motive driving solutions to the climate crisis.

CCWF is a for-profit business, but one that bills itself on its website as part of a “response to the challenges of the centralized energy systems that resulted from neo-liberal philosophies”—that is, the philosophy that large-scale privatization is the most efficient (read: profitable) way to provide people with energy.

Many people in Tatamagouche glimpsed the impacts of that problematic system in 2008, when Jesus Brochero, a union leader representing workers from the Cerrejon mine in Colombia, visited the community. Cerrejon provides coal to the Maritime provinces via Nova Scotia Power.

Brochero spoke of the myriad hazards mineworkers in Colombia face. Earlier that year, a fellow union leader at the mine, Adolfo Gonzalez Montes, was “tortured and killed at his home,” says Glynn. He was one of 2,510 unionists murdered in Colombia in the last 10 years.

“In the Maritimes, we clearly see how capitalism has merely shifted ecological problems…through the sourcing of cheap, dirty, blood coal in Colombia for our energy consumption,” says Glynn.

David Swan is quick to note that those problems are catching up to us.

“It’s only in the last 200 years we’ve had this concept of ‘I will live better than my parents,’” says Swan. “We may have to go back to a more steady-state lifestyle, a mindset of ‘I won’t have more than my grandparents.’”

Despite her reservations, Hempel is quick to note that she believes the positive aspects of the wind turbine project far outweigh the negative.

“Overall, I think it’s great,” says Hempel. There are “open meetings with everyone, it’s very involved, very transparent.”

And, despite the small scale of the project, Wilf Bean emphasizes its place in the bigger picture.

“At least we’ll be using some clean power source,” Bean says, “and cut[ting] down a little bit on Colombian coal.”

Ben Sichel is a writer and teacher in Halifax.

The Coal In Our Veins

Nova Scotia’s addiction to dirty, bloody power


HALIFAX—Wind farms aside, Nova Scotia is coal country. Approximately three-quarters of the province’s electricity is derived from this fossil fuel and much of it is imported—but not without conflict.

“Indigenous peoples [in Colombia] have been displaced from their traditional lands for multinationals to access resources that are then exported to us for our energy needs,” according to Garry Leech, author and professor at the University of Cape Breton.

Cape Breton, a rugged island off the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, used to be the home of coal mining in the province, and is where miners joined the first trade union in North America—the Provincial Workman’s Association (PWA). The PWA was incorporated in Springhill, NS, in 1881 by coal miners demanding better wages and living conditions.

Today, at the Sydney port not far from the union’s origins, coal is unloaded from Colombia.

Nova Scotia began importing coal from the US in the 1950s and 60s for reasons of quality, since the coal mined here was a dirty, low-grade fuel. “Then, taking advantage of...neoliberal economic policies in the late 1990s, the province began to import coal from Colombia instead,” said Leech.

He explains that over the past 20 years, globalization has had a huge impact on Colombia, “opening up Colombia’s resources to foreign investment, particularly in mining and oil.” Cerrejon, a coal mine in northern Colombia, is now the largest open-pit coal mine in the world, and is the reason many Nova Scotians (and New Brunswickers) can turn on their lights, heat their homes and eat toast. All of the coal mined at Cerrejon is exported to Canada, the US and Europe.

Leech dismisses the common argument that Cerrejon’s profit trickles down to Colombians. “While, on paper, this mine contributes to the country’s GDP, most of the wealth generated from the mine leaves the country as profit for foreign-owned multinationals. The people in the affected areas are often living in poverty, and their homes have been devastated.”

MiningWatch cites ongoing damage to homes and severe skin and respiratory diseases suffered by people in the area.

Alongside a deplorable track record of human rights protection and a decades-long civil war, these factors have led to Colombian coal being dubbed “blood coal.”

Nevertheless, Nova Scotia continues to source mass amounts of coal from Colombia, and Brennan Vogel, Energy Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, says he doesn’t see the province moving away from coal anytime soon.

Nova Scotia’s electricity provider—Nova Scotia Power Incorporated (NSPI)—is a private company that is guaranteed a 10 per cent return on investment by the provincial government. Changing its infrastructure to an energy source other than coal would be an expensive process, says Vogel. Because of this, Vogel sees a need for a broader conversation about electricity.

“Is energy a commodity,” he asks, “or is it a right like water or food, that people need to be assured of?”

Leech says energy doesn’t need to be linked to human rights violations and can be more environmentally friendly. But, according to him, “this has never been the motive of NSPI. They have a monopoly in the province...So, as long as it’s profitable, they’ll keep doing what they’re doing.”

Angela Day is a writer, educator, urban gardener and community organizer with roots in Halifax. She currently coordinates programs for young women across HRM.

These articles were produced by the Halifax Media Co-op for A People's Forecast: The Climate Justice Issue, our 2011 special issue. Come launch the special issue in Halifax on Wednesday, May 18! To read more climate justice articles as they are published, click here.

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Cape Breton coal used in a big way by NSP

Thank you for this article. Something surprises me. It seems that everyone on the environmental scene, whether it be the Sierra Club or the Ecology Action Centre,and others, completely ignores that coal mining is still going strong in Cape Breton,causing devastation of forest, marshes, shores, wildlife in Point Aconi, and that it supplies a great quantity of very poor coal to NSP. It has destroyed many lives and the neighborhood has endured and still endures terrible hardship. Constant blasting and dust,right up to their houses, complete devaluation of their homes with no compensation. All the coal used by NSP does not come from Columbia. I am aware of the tragic situation of Columbians in mine territories exploited by Canadian corps.

For ongoing extraction of coal in Cape breton, visit
www.c-a-s-m.org. It is an excellent and explicit view of the Point Aconi situaion with lots of telling pictures. There you will get the true picture of the coal "story" in Cape Breton and in Nova Scotia,and see that it is still very much alive, and destructive.

On another tack, I am elated by what you tell about Wilf Bean and his collaborators' achievement. My hat to them! They seem to have broken NSP's monopoly which has been the cause of both: power high and ever rising prices and lack of green development. It would be interesting to know more about this "monopoly". Is it for ever? Can the agreement between Nova Scotia be obtained? It should. And no agreement should last for ever. Due to the lack of efforts by NSP to develop green energy, I think it is time to put an end to this contract.

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